The idea of what is natural has particular relevance in the thoroughbred racing and breeding discourse. It guides breeding regulations; influences how the thoroughbreds' behaviour is perceived and has implications for husbandry, handling, training and racing practices. This study investigates how key industry and animal advocacy informants based in the US, Australia and the UK conceptualise naturalness within the context of common racing practices that potentially impact the horses' welfare. The informants were interviewed using semi-structured interviewing and photo-elicitation. Four common images of thoroughbreds on race day were presented to elicit the informants' responses. Differences emerged between how the two groups tended to describe the images and the role naturalness played in their conceptualisations. The findings were analysed using an updated version of the Layers of Engagement with Animal Protection developed by Bergmann to situate the informants' conceptualisations of naturalness within the wider thoroughbred protection discourse. In conclusion, the industry informants tended to defend the status quo of common racing practices. They tended to naturalise and normalise these practices and downplay their welfare impact. This poses risks for thoroughbred welfare, which are amplified by misrepresentations of what is natural. With the public's understanding of welfare and racing practices growing, racing's legitimacy may be further questioned. Opportunities to leverage the potential of the notion of naturalness for thoroughbred protection are discussed.
Keywords: animal protection; animal welfare; equine welfare; horse-human relationships; human-animal relations; naturalness; photo-elicitation; thoroughbred racing; thoroughbred welfare.